Is Forest Bathing the New Meditation?

Is Forest Bathing the New Meditation?
Photo: Twenty20

I’m not like most Angelinos when it comes to de-stressing. No shade to energy healing and meditation, but I prefer to crank up some Bey and do a HIIT workout to shake a bad day. In a town where yoga studios outnumber Starbucks cafes, I was always more drawn to the high-intensity, muscle-burning classes and Nama-stayed away from more peaceful practices.

That is, until an aggressive burpee (or was it the kettlebell lift?) sparked some serious back pain that sidelined me for a few weeks without my usual calming Rx. (Cue: More stress.) So, like the 45 percent of young adults in America that fight anxiety on the reg, I had to explore alternative routes to zen.

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While I was recovering from my back injury, I was invited by Ben Page, founder of Shinrin Yoku LA and a forest therapy guide, to try a Shinrin Yoku session. My first reaction was, “What the heck is forest therapy?” My second thought was, “You mean like being one with nature?” I’m the ultimate skeptic, but since I enjoy a good hike, I thought I’d see what all the buzz was about.

We agreed on a time to meet for our walk through Franklin Canyon, a stroll that would include something called “invitations” (similar to activities) and “council” (group discussions). Invitations and council are designed to improve mental and physical health. My guess was that there’d be no Beyonce music involved, and that I’d have to settle for the rustling of the trees. I told Ben I was game, and we got a forest bath on the calendar.

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Shinrin Yoku: The Origins of Forest Bathing

In the 1980s when Japan was experiencing a tech boom (much like what we’re seeing in the United States today), many people’s health suffered from the stress of it. Medical professionals began exploring new ways to treat this “epidemic” and found real evidence that an escape to the woods could be the best form of therapy.

“In Japan you go to the doctor and he says, ‘OK I need you to go do two hours of Shinrin Yoku,'” Page says. The Forest Therapy Society of Japan certifies trails for Shinrin Yoku by taking blood samples from 100 participants before the hike, walking them down the trail and then measuring the natural killer (NK) cell boost count to see if it has increased. NK cells are responsible for keeping cancerous tumors at bay. And some research suggests it works: An independent study on nature therapy and preventive medicine found that a two-hour walk in nature for three days in a row increased NK cell count by 50 to 56 percent.

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The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing

In addition to reducing stress and anxiety, Page says Shinrin Yoku proponents believe the practice might also help prevent cancer. “The reason it’s called forest bathing in Japan is because trees shower themselves in things called phytoncides, which help trees attack cancers and microbial growth, so the tree is keeping itself healthy,” he explains.

According to an independent study, “Japanese people living in areas with lower forest coverage had significantly higher standardized mortality ratios for cancers compared with people living in areas with higher forest coverage, suggesting that forest environments may partially contribute to decreased mortality ratios for some cancers.”

The study goes on to say that NK cells can kill tumor cells by releasing anti-cancer proteins, like perforin. Some research also suggests that a walk through some lush foliage had dramatic effects on a person’s immune system and overall wellness. “Studies show that Shinrin Yoku is a natural antidepressant, boosts immune function and even increases your creativity and mental functions,” says Page.

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Recognizing the very powerful implications of this practice, Amos Clifford (Page’s mentor), got to work. With a background as a wilderness guide and rights of passage guide, he decided to bring a guided version to the United States in 2012. The result: The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. Today, the organization has 130 forest therapy guides globally, who take anywhere from one to 18 participants on a nature walk for three hours.

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Is Forest Bathing the New Meditation?
Photo Courtesy of Ben Page

Forest Bathing: I Walk the Walk

When I met Page and another forest therapy guide for our hike in Beverly Hills, I realized I was overdressed in my fitness gear and CamelBak hydration pack. This was not going to be the strenuous hike I’d prepared for. In fact, the walk is meant to be easy and relaxing. “Slowing down is actually one of the hardest things for people to do. We’re not used to moving slowly,” Page says.

In order to fully focus on the forest therapy, we were asked to power down for the next three hours (#PanicMode). Each walk includes “invitations,” or activities that awaken your senses and maximize your therapy. They’re meant to help participants relax and avoid obsessing over their worries and concerns. Each invitation is followed by a “council meeting,” where participants are asked to share their experience. These experiences vary from very direct (“I was bored”) to emotional (“This invitation made me realize I haven’t truly grieved my mother’s death”) and everything in between.

“That’s the magic of council, you get your experience. It’s yours,” Page says. According to forest therapy gurus, these simple moments of reflecting help us become more present and more in tune with our emotions.

The first invitation we had was called “The Pleasure of Presence,” which is meant to awaken the senses by touching our fingers to our nose, closing our eyes and listening to the rustling of the leaves. These simple tasks made it easier to be more present and focus on my own experience. This invitation did force me to take a beat. All of which I shared in council when it was my turn with the talking stick.

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Is Forest Bathing the New Meditation?
Photo Courtesy of Ben Page

If These Woods Could Talk…

Our second invitation involved following Page’s lead — and pace — as we threaded the forest and touched trees, plants and other delights of nature along the way. Whenever the sounds of others would cloud my thoughts, Page would start playing a soothing tune from his flute. I immediately re-focused my mind to the matter at hand.

We did several other invitations and council sessions, including one that involved sitting and talking to a tree (yes, you read that correctly) for 20 minutes on your own. “The forest is not going to intrude on your personal space. It’s really going to honor that and be like ‘I’m here if you need me but I’m not needy,'” Page said. I have to admit I felt a little silly (OK, really silly) sitting next to a tree, while bystanders looked at me wondering what was going on. I prayed they didn’t Snapchat this weird interaction, and then scolded myself for using this time to think about social media.

But once I got over the awkwardness, I really took in the beauty around me: the view of the pine needles intertwined above me, the sap seeping through the bark. It was a real lesson in stopping and looking around every once in a while.

The day ended with a tea ceremony, so we could reflect on our experiences and share any final thoughts. We sipped rosemary and pine needle tea and snacked on fruits and nuts.

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A Walk With Nature: The Assessment

I realized that while I thought this would be like a meditation session — and it was — for me, it was more about using the time for personal therapy and for discovering what deep down could be reconciled for some inner peace. I recognized how distracted I am by technology and how my thoughts traveled from one idea to the next when I had the time to just sit and think.

Page had emailed me when I got home: “I hope you continue to feel the calm and relaxation throughout the week,” he wrote. “According to research, the amount of time we spend in nature should continue to make you feel good for a week,” he added. And indeed I felt good and refreshed in the days following my forest therapy.

The benefits of Shinrin Yoku are so vast that the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs has been working with major health insurance companies to incorporate their program into health plans in the near future, Page says.

Forest Bathing: A New Self-Care Practice

But it’s important to note that one forest therapy session doesn’t mean you’re cured for life. You need to incorporate some type of forest therapy into your life regularly in order to reap its benefits, experts suggest. That can be as simple as: “Just go outside, find a tree, and sit under it for five minutes,” Page says. Or if you’re up for a little more of a commitment, you can find a forest therapy guide using this locator. With the short-term benefits I experienced, $30 for each guided walk seems to be just as invigorating and therapeutic as a self-help seminar or even a wellness retreat.

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And remember, forest bathing is not meant to be a replacement for professional medical help or mental health support. But if you have a few hours to take in some fresh air, sunshine and some alone time with nature, you have nothing to lose.

Forest therapy is offered in many locations throughout the U.S. Ben Page, the founder of Shinrin Yoku LA, offers regular private or public walks all over southern California for $30 a session.

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